Steely Lies The Heart
Musings on Playwriting in the Age of Trump
“I got a bracelet.”
“What’s it say?”
I hold up my wrist for my daughter to inspect.
Her eyes widen.
“Feminist just means boys and girls are equal.”
“And the other word is okay to say sometimes.”
She smiles, then giggles.
It’s an f word on my bracelet. In our house, we don’t even allow “shut up” or the other f word which we use in place of the word “gas,” so this is a departure. A shift.
“The bracelet means boys and girls are equal and mommy believes that very much.”
My daughter giggles again, nods happily, sits back in her seat, and I start the car.
I don’t often wear T-shirts with slogans on them, so this is as capitalism-on-my-clothes friendly as I get—wearing this bracelet, one of the only items I asked for for Christmas, and which my sister-in-law bestowed upon me. But after the election, I felt it was one thing I really wanted: a thin metal bracelet with a slogan that matched what I hope to aspire to, even if sometimes that term is complicated by the machinations of race, class, gender expression, and religion. Sometimes I lose my voice—thinking up the perfect come-back days after someone utters some circa 1955 remark in the Starbucks line or at a kid’s soccer game or in a meeting—but the words etched into that bracelet are always there in me somewhere. Steely and cold and real. A reminder. I, too, am steely and cold and real. And I am not going anywhere.
What does the future look like in a nation whose elected officials now indicate that they value the arts and artists differently than those before them? Is the work alone enough to serve as a reminder that some of us are steely, cold, and real? Or do artists...miss the point entirely?
The bracelet signals a shift in outward expression in other ways, too. In the time frame leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election and in the months that have followed, I have found myself fascinated by how massive a potential culture shift it has left in its wake. If certain powers have their way, we could live in a world where choice refers only to schools, where arts funding—or the denial of it—dictates who gets to live and work legitimately as artists, where war and might are the only answers, where identity is mocked. I hope I am wrong. I think this is what alternately makes me so excited to be alive in this moment one day, and utterly exhausted the next: I am simultaneously enthralled and spent as I watch this new moment unfurl itself in front of our eyes.
As I watch, I am reminded that I am a playwright. And as such my job is “to hold a mirror up to nature,” to half-quote Shakespeare. And so during this cultural shift, I find myself examining not only this unruly moment, but the playwright’s relationship to it. What happens to one’s work when the world around us is changing so rapidly? Even for those of us who do not write explicitly political plays, what does the future look like in a nation whose elected officials now indicate that they value the arts and artists differently than those before them? Is the work alone enough to serve as a reminder that some of us are steely, cold, and real? Or do artists—many of us progressive-leaning, with our representatives now on speed-dial and our ubers delivering us to Town Halls—miss the point entirely? And that is, that we should not be this loud and brash at all. We should simply be quiet and grateful. And, beneath that, lies a deeper question: perhaps this President and this nation believe we artists, like so many others, belong “elsewhere”?
While many questions arise, one thing seems clear: the election and its ensuing months jolted artistic communities around the United States, causing many playwrights to commit or recommit themselves to political activism. I’ve seen this shift very clearly in my community in Boston, MA. “I had always had an interest in politics,” says Boston-based playwright Pat Gabridge, “But I’m much more actively seeking out information now. I’m more likely to contact my elected representatives. I’ve marched and expect to march again.”
David Valdes Greenwood agrees he’s become even more politically active since Election 2016 and has created responsive work—he recently curated an event featuring playwrights’ short pieces about our current times called Pinning Our Hopes which was performed in Boston in January—and he’s used social media to engage with others. “I’ve been so outside (gay, Latino, raised on welfare) and yet so inside (as someone visibly white and male), that my life has pretty much always been a walk between worlds, and somehow my default has always been evangelist: I carry the former into the latter and try to make conversation about that. So, yes—it comes like breathing to me,” says Valdes Greenwood, when speaking about how his work relates to our current moment.
“Everything means more than it did,” explains Lila Rose Kaplan, who characterizes her work as funny, feminist, and theatrical. “My comedy about a group of villains has a new charge now that our country is led by a group of villains.”
When I asked her if she is more or less politically active after Election 2016, playwright Melinda Lopez said,
More. More, more, more. More. I’ve started volunteering at a food pantry, cooking meals for the marginalized. I know my representatives. I call them. I read the news every day. I march. But I also live in a bubble in the Northeast, and I don’t take any real risks by doing these things. I am aware of that. I don’t engage with people I disagree with—that’s gotten to be a far more conscious choice. I don’t try to change anyone’s mind, because I can’t be rational. I just start yelling. It’s bad for everyone. I am careful in company when I don’t know the politics of everyone in the room. I try not to bring it up. I had a terrible moment with an old friend not too long after the election where I realized, ‘Oh, god, she voted for Trump.’ She gave me very subtle, very quiet clues. I picked up on them and we changed the subject. It was fine. But it made me so sad.
I too, want to be motivated by this political moment. Right now, people who are not writers often point out things that are happening now that they feel could be plays. The Obamas and the Tiffany Box from the Trumps: a play. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer: a play. Kelly Ann Conway sitting provocatively on a couch in the oval office in the middle of educators from Historically Black Colleges: a play. Or perhaps all very awkward moments signifying shifts in our cultural landscape. I am not sure what the play is. But I am thinking.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but the space and appreciation for thinking and reflection has perhaps shifted as well now that Trump is president and the GOP controls both the House and the Senate, because all of these events may have palpable implications for how arts funding is allocated—if it is allocated at all—in the coming years. Again, I hope I am wrong. I hope someone in the party who is in charge really loved Hamilton or secretly adores Fun Home or once, a long time ago, was in Oklahoma! in high school, and does not see federal arts funding as something that must produce “results.”
Much has been made about how the budget for the NEA is less than it costs for year of Secret Service protection for Melania and Barron Trump to reside in Trump Tower. Though this may not be completely true, it does emphasize how small the NEA budget is compared to other federal priorities. I think of a little boy I know who was really proud to receive violin lessons through his school. The violin, the lessons, the books—all “free.” Did we really all just trade those for Melania’s school of choice? Is this where the money “must” go to “keep us safe”? On days like this, writing becomes charged in new ways.
In a rather perverse way, this pressure of “where will the money go?” has made me evaluate what I write and who I write for. Something I have been curious about in recent months is how other writers are configuring their writing plans, if they have them, now that Trump is in office. For me, I have a slate of plays to write, and until now their subject matter was similar to the plays I have written previously. While not simple fare, I can say sometimes they exist within the bubble Melinda speaks of. It is easy to say: “That is not right. No. Don’t do that” in the context of those plays if you hail from a certain set of demographics. In the last few months I have questioned the trajectory of my work and sought to investigate it more rigorously. If theatre is to remain relevant under a President who seems to firmly believe we are only here to entertain, then this is imperative, for it may be our communities—in various forms—who end up supporting us, rather than the state and federal dollars we’ve come to rely upon in the past. Therefore, we must seek to speak to them, for them, and with them, or we may cease to have the means to reach audiences in the ways we do now.
Pat told me that he has a plan, and it hasn’t changed much. He added, “I’m curious as to whether possible arts funding cuts will cause a reduction in new play productions across the country. Hard to say.” David’s plan remains unchanged. While the climate is disturbing, he says, it’s more motivation for him to do his work.
And there is that idea again: work. The playwright’s work. What is the nature of that work at this time?
Pat puts it this way: “Sometimes it’s our role to paint the picture of the now, and sometimes it’s to make links between what is happening now and what happened in the past. To try to get beyond ‘what is happening’ and start understanding ‘why it is happening.’"
How beautiful to be a playwright, how divine, especially at a moment like this.
Of course, just the physical act of writing can be a feat. “Some days it’s impossible,” says Lila Rose. “Other days it’s the only thing that makes sense.” And when I think of it this way, I feel that invigorated steeliness, that urge to admit to the world that yes, this is the only thing I want to do ever, ever, ever: how beautiful to be a playwright, how divine, especially at a moment like this.
But still. I would not be true to my Puritan-Yankee roots if I did not participate in some form of self-imposed punishment. I feel as though I have not earned that divinity. My desk at home is piled high with books on American history, feminism, American studies, gender studies. It’s mid-teaching semester. So as of yet they are all unread and renewed from the library within an inch of their lives, despite the fact that this election has made me want to examine every tendril of our society: how did we get here? Where might we go next? Even if we are divided, can we see ourselves in each other enough not to destroy that which is good?
Is that my play? Steely and cold? Or, perhaps it is just an echo in a chamber. Often it seems we theatre artists write for each other. If we aren’t, we are writing for other similarly minded people.
This is something Melinda seemed to be getting at as she talked of process and writing during these times:
I have always used my artistic voice to play Devil’s advocate to what I assumed we—members of a liberal audience—“all” agree about, and to create characters who were flawed, who the audience might love to hate. Basically, I assumed the politics of my audience and always tried to push back against their assured and comfortable assumptions. ‘What are the downfalls of adherence to a feminist code? Are we allowed to talk about women lying about rape? We liberals get it wrong so often. Maybe conservative ideology has a place?’ Now I think attacking political correctness or challenging women’s voices is exactly the wrong thing to do. As a result, I am looking at intensely personal stories that operate completely outside the sphere of politics.
I still think a theatrical hero/ine has to surprise, shock, be her own adversary—right? If the character is not the agent of her own downfall, then I don’t know what I’m writing. So do I really want to look at the truth of how democracy is fucked? Can I really write that? Can I really indict myself? I mean, can I really indict myself? I mean, I’m living it, right? Who is the enemy now? I don’t know. I’m pretty confused.
Melinda is not alone.
But a place of confusion, while disorienting, is not an unproductive place to be, for it, too, can be motivating: rife with questions as well as steely, cold, entirely real, and forward propelling. In talking with Pat, Melinda, Lila Rose, and David, who were gracious enough to lend their time to this topic, what became clear is that the various mirrors theatre artists hold are firmly planted, shining, ready to capture all, whether the powers that have been elected care to acknowledge their presence or not. Just as the current President has attempted to discredit the press, he has and will work to shatter the immense power of the arts in America. We are not here merely to entertain. We are that thin coil of steel, simultaneously enthralled and spent, elegant and obscene, holding tight. And we are not going anywhere.